Philippine media’s shortcomings in covering Pope Francis’ apostolic visit

Pope Francis’ recent apostolic visit to the Philippines last month caused quite a stir, or if I may speak hyperbolically, rocked our world to a momentary halt. The busy streets of Manila, ordinarily more engrossed with going about the capital city’s daily normal activities, was still busy but for an entirely different reason — waiting in earnest to welcome and be in the presence of the beloved leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Public holidays were declared not just in the cities he’d be visiting but the entire nation. Indeed, there’s no understating the gravity and impact of the event.

In the days leading to this historic and deeply momentous event for the third largest Catholic nation in the world, much hype surrounded the visit of the pontiff both in mainstream media and the social media.

Sensational frenzy

In the media perspective, no story can be as big or impactful as the papal visit. But naturally, the mainstream media, set in its ways, had to sensationalize it. The pope was to receive the “rock-star treatment” from Pinoys and feature stories circulated around about Pope Francis and his first girlfriend or his former job as a club bouncer.

Then the day came for his arrival. And indeed, it was a media frenzy. Major local news outfits scatter trying to give everyone a “360-degree coverage” (as how the network TV5 dubbed their coverage). Social media was watching like a hawk, tweeting and posting every little detail from the important to the most inane — kids wearing Swiss Guard outfits to asking what’s inside Pope Francis’ bag, to stressing over how the word “nunciature” should be pronounced. While Fnetizens are netizens, the professionals just had to jump the social media bandwagon and report about the cute psalmist or what the Pope ate for dinner.

“..should their answer be because of his adorable smile, or his apparent sweet tooth, or how he likes to indulge in selfies, or maybe because of his seemingly boundless energy?”

While this can be excused by saying the “human interest” angle keep things from being dull, it is also however turning the coverage into a celebrity puff piece about a sensational religious figure. What should’ve been a more substantial reporting turned into a superficial media circus. I would go as far as saying they humanized the pope so hard up to a point that they “dumbed him down,” if you’ll excuse the expression. Philippine media’s portrait of the pope, though at first glance was endearing but when excessively repeated, was glib. Should you ask an ordinary Filipino on the street why we called him the “People’s Pope” should their answer be because of his adorable smile, or his apparent sweet tooth, or how he likes to indulge in selfies, or maybe because of his seemingly boundless energy?

This is not to say that the Pinoy media failed in this coverage. It is not to discount that information was delivered instantaneously and the media had shared those moments to other millions of Filipinos who couldn’t personally be there. But it wasn’t without its shortcomings.

Questions unasked

In retrospect, they did a fine job reminding how significant this visit was. The media attention was enough, extreme even, it was round the clock, it was impossible to miss anything. But with more retrospect, I felt the spotlight was a bit misplaced or least too focused on one spot.

Objectivity seem to have gone out the window sacrificing that thing we call balanced reporting. They somehow felt the object of the focus should be on the Pope and his visit and nothing else. While we are celebrating an event of this magnitude, should we then ignore everything else that somehow insult its sanctity? Or is this just our innate value of courtesy and hospitality at work? How can all three big TV networks ignore that just like most social institutions, this visit had socio-political agenda? Was it not the best time? To quote Rappler columnist, “was the media just being courteous or was it our colonial bias toward the Catholic Church?”

Our president was not courteous at all. He was criticized for freely voicing out the ill feelings he held toward the Church during a speech, as he welcomes Pope Francis, including controversial issues on the clergy’s lavish lifestyles or threats of excommunication because of his support of the reproductive health law or a bishop criticizing his hair, or lack thereof. I was shocked that he had the gall to do that in the presence of the Roman pontiff, no less. But at the same time, I’m also bummed that in an ordinary day his remarks should’ve provoked not just criticism and admonishment but also a healthy dose of public discourse. This was no ordinary news day, however. Political and social issues had been reduced by the media as the proverbial elephants in the room.

The papal visit coverage, through and through, was a marathon of deliberately-made-to-be-in-good-light coverage. While it may be refreshing to only hear news about how the Papal Visit was such an inspiration of hope and holiness or of mercy and compassion for an entire week, it must be noted that the media fell short in upholding the tenets of their craft -reporting the good, the bad and the ugly.

Quoting that same columnist, “Media can set public agenda and its framing of news can make or break personalities — if not institutions. With a lopsided media, the dominant will stay powerful and the status quo will remain unchallenged. We need more critical perspectives to incite more critical thought.”

That couldn't have echoed my sentiments better.

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